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Nowruz History and Its Origins among Iranians

Nowruz, Iranian New Year, has got deep roots among ancient Iranians, particularly farmers. As their lives depended largely on agriculture and producing food, it has got strong connection to such lifestyle. You need to know Nowruz history and roots of Nowruz Celebration to understand it better.

Preparing for Nowruz Celebration in Persepolis

Preparing for Nowruz Celebration in Persepolis

When no agricultural activities were possible in Winter, each individual used to go home and try to keep warm on his/her own. The end of Winter and beginning of Spring, when it got warm again and the people, most of whom were farmers, could get out and come together for work and produce food, the time for togetherness started. This could be a solid reason for Nowruz celebration!

Nowruz & Mythology

According to the ancient myths, when Iranian mythological king, Jamshid, ruled in Iran for 1000 years, everything was good. Food was abundant, lies didn’t exist, plants didn’t go dry, people didn’t suffer from extreme cold and hot weather conditions, nobody got old, jealous, etc.

During such time and at the beginning of first day of the first month of Spring, Jamshid sat on his throne decorated with gems and put on a crown encrusted with jewels, against the East. When the Sun started shining at him and the throne, people saw him glittering like the Sun. Therefore, this brought plenty of happiness and joy to the nation. They celebrated that day and called it a new day, Nowruz. The happy ceremonies took five days and everyone celebrated the New Year and the revival of nature.

Nowruz & History

Since 3rd millenium BC, Nowruz was commemorated with joy in Iranian plateau, but not in the Eastern half of Iran. At the same time, it was celebrated in the Mesopotamia. Nowruz history doesn’t originally go back to a Zoroastrian nor an Aryan tradition.

Nowruz Celebration by Ancient Iranians

Nowruz Celebration by Ancient Iranians

 

There was another festivity popularly celebrated after the time of harvest around early November. During that time, Iranian calendar had 7 months of Summer and 5 months of Winter. Mehregan was at the end of Summer and the beginning of Winter. The cause of joy was the crops harvested, meaning food for people.

Nowruz and Mehregan were celebrated in several other adjacent countries. For example they were popular among Semites, Arabs of Medina, etc. These annual celebration have continued till now in various countries.

When you study Nowruz history, you find out it wasn’t a Zoroastrian festivity, because Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrians, hasn’t mentioned it. On the other hand, it wasn’t celebrated at the Eastern half of Iran, where the main concentration of Zoroastrians used to live. One fact is for sure: Nowruz was celebrated in Persepolis.

Nowruz Festivity in Ancient Calendars

In Achaemenian era, people and officials commemorated Nowruz in form of an annual tradition everywhere – at home and in Persepolis. Some researchers believe that during early Achaemenian era, Mehregan was celebrated in Fall, but under Darius I, the beginning of Spring was determined to be the time for the annual festivity in Persepolis.

The Persian king was sitting in a particular direction and specific spot in Persepolis so that daylight could shine at his face at sunrise. This is why Persepolis is known as the throne of Jamshid and Iranians call it Takht-e-Jamshid.

In Parthian and Sassanian eras, various calendars caused the day of Nowruz to move to other days as the calculation for different calendars were not the same.

Iranians continued celebrating Nowruz even after Arabs’ invasion, which brought Islam to Iran. Arab caliphs weren’t happy about this at all, but Iranian Muslims kept on honoring and celebrating their national rituals.

Under Seljuks, when Turk authorities were very much against Nowruz festivities, Iranian calendar went through several manipulative changes. Eventually, a group of mathematicians were assigned a project to correct the calendar including Omar Khayyam. They fixed Nowruz time at the beginning day of Spring, almost the same as 21st of March, when Iranians celebrate Nowruz these days.

When Safavids ruled in Iran from 16th to 18th centuries, Nowruz celebration was mixed with some Islamic rituals. Religious leaders narrated traditions from Imams to approve that the prophet Mohammad and others did great things at such a day. Therefore, today Iranian Shiites celebrate Nowruz as an annual Iranian-Islamic event and even recognize it as a holy and blessed day.

Customs and Traditions before Nowruz – Part 2

Special Items to Buy for Nowruz Ceremonies

Special Items to Buy for Nowruz Ceremonies

 

This is the second part of the series of activities people are involved in before Nowruz and after that.

More Customs and Traditions before Nowruz

Below is the list of more customs and traditions of the Iranian New Year:

Making Noise with Spoon

Young girls/women hit the bowls at Chaharshanbeh Soori

Young girls/women hit the bowls at Chaharshanbeh Soori

Decent girls and women, who had wishes like getting married, walked out at night with copper bowls and hit them with spoons at the threshold of seven doors without saying anything. The house dwellers knew they had certain wishes and replied with putting certain things like nuts, cookies, rice, legumes, etc at their bowls.

Refusing to give away anything would mean to those women that their needs wouldn’t be met. Receiving something, on the other hand, had the opposite meaning of the former.

Unlocking the Lock

According to various local customs and traditions before Nowruz, single girls who wanted better luck in getting married, went through different rituals. Sometimes, a mother chased her daughter with a piece of burning wood. It was symbolic of giving her away to her husband.

Sometimes, girls took bath in a particular spring to get married or married women did the same thing to push out the bad luck from their home and win their husbands’ love.

Several similar works were carried out at the night before the last Wednesday of the year to unlock the locked happiness of their lives.

Jar Breaking

Women used to break jars to keep their household safe

Women used to break jars to keep their household safe

 

The women, who wanted to keep away evil from their household, went to the roof or some designated tower in their communities to throw down a new (not used) jars to break them. They believed this could keep their families safe.

Taking Amen by Jars

Women used to come together with a narrow-spout jar and everyone threw some object into it. Another woman wrote some love poems on small pieces of paper and threw them into the same jar. Then, a very young girls (who wasn’t grown up yet), was asked to take out an object and a piece of paper. The poem would say something about the life of the owner of the object.

Breaking Spells

Some made a particular liquid mixture with vinegar and sprinkled it at four corners of their houses, the rooms and the entrance to break the spells and let the blessing flow in their lives.

Chaharshanbeh Soori Soup

Special soup is prepared for Chaharshanbeh Soori celebration

Special soup is prepared for Chaharshanbeh Soori celebration

 

If someone was ill, his/her family made a votive soup at the night before the last Wednesday of the year. Some of it was given to the ill person and the rest was distributed among the poor. This was to bring back health to the ill person by some charitable act.

Distributing Chaharshanbeh Soori Nuts

Some nuts were bought by the women who had particular wishes. They bought a combination of seven different nuts, cleaned and unshelled them to eat the kernels with family, relatives and friends. While having the nuts, they narrated a particular story. Today this tradition is just to have something to eat and enjoy.

Remembering the Deceased

This pre-Nowruz tradition, like in many other nations, has got roots in the antiquity. Even in different religions, people tend to remember the beloved ones they have lost in specific days.
In some areas of Iran, people still keep this tradition in various ways. Some light up lanterns or put some fire on the roofs and turn on lights sooner at the last day of the year and keep them going until the dawn of the first day of the New Year.

In some other areas, firework on hilltops and outdoor is the tradition to remember the deceased. Other forms of such remembering are like burning candles at different corners of home. In particular cities, illumination of shops and fireworks symbolized such occasion. Today firework at the night before the last Wednesday of the year, Chaharshanbeh Soori, is another form of this tradition.

Conclusion

In general, people have been keeping several customs and traditions before Nowruz indicating the end of the old and the beginning of the new. They need to remember the dead ones and keep living in happiness and health.

Once a year, people get prepared for another year at Nowruz, 21st of March, by keeping such customs and traditions. This creates a state of bliss and joyfulness in everyone.

 

Customs and Traditions before Nowruz – Part 1

Nowruz Entertainer

Nowruz Entertainer

 

Since ancient times, Iranians have observed various customs and traditions before Nowruz (Iranian New Year) and after that. These are a series of activities that take different forms in various parts of Iran. Below is a list of some activities people have been involved to get prepared for this annual festivity.

Main Customs and Traditions before Nowruz

There are several activities going on among Iranians before the new year starts. You can read some of the main ones here and continue learning about them on the next part!

Nowruz Messengers

They are some groups of entertainers who bring the message of the New Year at public places by singing, dancing, acting, etc to make people happy. Such tradition has had various names and forms at different parts of Iran. What has been common among all of them is the intention to bring happy time to the people regardless of the clothes they wear, songs they sing and appearances they make.

At such days before Nowruz and sometimes several days after the equinox, people give presents to one another and to those messengers who entertain the whole community.

To Get Prepared for Nowruz

In ancient times, Iranians who have been mostly farmers, planted seven types of seeds of wheat, barley, beans, corn, chickpeas, rice, etc on top of column-like cylinders so that the green plants could grow at the outset of the New Year. This could bring the good news of the blessed New Year ahead. The plant growing better could be a sign of better crop from that seed in the year to come.

Today people plant seeds likewise about 2 or 3 weeks before Nowruz at small plates or vessels. At the end of Nowruz holidays, they take them out of their homes and leave them in nature and sometimes throw them into the running water. Here are some of the customs and traditions before Nowruz:

Home Clean-up before Nowruz

This happens at all levels at homes. People take dust away from walls, floors, household stuff, etc. They also wash vessels, clothes, curtains, carpets, etc and bleach copper vessels and soothe-stricken walls. Old broken things are thrown out or given away. Instead, new stuff replaces them so that everything is renewed. This is done every year before Nowruz.

All such cleaning customs at home symbolize the removal of evil from home and living environment and prepare a clean home to welcome the spirits of their beloved ones who had lost their lives.

Chaharshanbeh Soori

Jumping over fire at Chaharshanbeh Soori

Jumping over fire at Chaharshanbeh Soori

The last Wednesday of the year is celebrated by fireworks one night before it comes. Soor means celebration. Among some Iranians like Kurds, it means red. Ancient Iranians celebrated the end of the year by setting up the red flames of fire at the roofs of their houses showing the way to the spirits of their lost ones so that they could reunite with them.

Another tradition kept by the people is to put 3, 5 or 7 heaps of dry bushes and thorns in a row, set them on fire and jump over them one after another. In various parts of Iran, they sing different songs while jumping. The content of all such short songs are focused on giving away their pain, sorrow and illness to gain health, happiness and fresh lives. Then, ashes are thrown into running water.

Water Sprinkling Games

Another tradition before Nowruz is water sprinkling games. Women used to go to water springs to bring water home to sprinkle it over everything. They believed this would bring freshness and health to their lives. Some Kurds fetch water from a spring before sunrise in jars and jumped over them three times. They made up their eyes with charcoal, drank from these jars and offer them to their neighbors and friends. Some women trim their fingernails or cut a little of their hair and left them to rivers so that water took their misery and pain away.

Eavesdropping

An interesting custom among Iranians before Nowruz is eavesdropping. Girls and women who would like to get married, go on pilgrimage, journeys, etc, used to go out and stand at crossroads and corners for overhearing what others say. If they heard pleasant happy words, it would indicate a happy blessed year was ahead of them. If bitter and sorrowful words were heard, they wouldn’t reach their goals and their wishes wouldn’t come true.

 

Music of the Bakhshis of Khorasan Registered by UNESCO

Music-Bakhshis-Khorasan

Music-Bakhshis-Khorasan

A Bakhshi Musician from Khorasan, Iran

Photo Courtesy of UNESCO Website

The music of Bakhshis of Khorasan is considered the cultural identity of the people of this region. It can be very fascinating to come to know and understand this type of music for the researchers, tourists and music lovers. It’s a specially enjoyable tourism opportunity for the enthusiasts of Iranian art and culture.The music of Bakhshis of Khorasan is considered the cultural identity of the people of this region. It can be very fascinating to come to know and understand this type of music for the researchers, tourists and music lovers. It’s a specially enjoyable tourism opportunity for the enthusiasts of Iranian art and culture.

Khorasan, the Cradle of Music of Bakhshis of Khorasan, Iran

Video courtesy of UNESCO’s YouTube Channel

Today there are three provinces of Northern Khorasan, Southern Khorasan and Razavy Khorasan in Iran. Traditionally, there has been a historical region mostly spread across modern day Afghanistan, eastern Iran and parts of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It’s gained a reputation as the Sun of the East.

Accommodating a multitude of unique shrines and burial memorials of eminent figures and poets, Khorasan has become one of the unparalleled regions with tourist attractions inviting numerous fans of original Iranian music. Since Khorasan region is the motherland of this type of music, some call it the Florence of Iran.

Among various genres of ancient music of this region, the music of Bakhshis of Khorasan is one of the musical forms within traditional and Maqam system of Iranian music. Like other Maqams of Folkloric music, Bakhshis’ music has emerged from the life of migrating nomads (of Kurdish and Turkish origins) and villagers. The intellectual value of this music has been high enough to be registered by UNESCO as one of a series of intangible Iranian music properties.

What leaves an unforgettable impression in one’s memory is the experience of listening to such music in person where it’s played. Many enjoy taking part in their special circles, particularly while making the musical instruments by using different types of wood. This music is accompanied by peculiar style of minstrel, shout as well as ups and downs that have strikingly coordinated music with improvisation. Many of the musicians of this genre are sometimes so deeply inundated with their own music and song that continue singing without noticing their fingers are cut by the instrument’s strings.

Dotar, A love Icon in the Music of Bakhshis of Khorasan

 

Dotar-Bakhshis-Khorasan

Dotar-Bakhshis-Khorasan

A Bakhshi Musician Playing Dotar

Photo Courtesy of Financial Tribune

What distinguishes this type of music from others is its instrument, “Dotar”. As the name implies (do: two & tar: string), it has got only two strings for playing, a couple regarded as male and female. The musician creates delightful melodies (Nava) that sit in listeners’ memory forever. One of the most famous songs of Bakhshi music of Khorasan is called “Navaee”. The wonderful tune of this style of music in Maqam system of Iranian music, you should listen to this song!

History and content of Music of Bakhshis of Khorasan

The history and creators of this type of music is unknown to us. According to the existing evidences, this traditional music of Iran has existed since ancient times and has been handed over to us from masters to pupils by our forefathers. The generation-to-generation transfer of this art has enriched it dramatically and given it a particular status.In the past, the singers of the music of Bakhshis of Khorasan were mainly farmers. Originally, it was sung by men while working in the farms or during resting intervals for various reasons and conveyed content like:

  • Detailed stories,
  • Incidents and accidents,
  • Maxims,
  • Inaccessibility of the beloved,
  • Complaints about the oppression,
  • Mystic state, and
  • Other human emotions.

This style of singing is a kind of minstrel in Turkish, Kurdish and Khorasani version of Persian. Later, it found its way to family circles, funerals, parties and even for healing of the patients. Today, the situation is different. It has turned into a type of Maqami music for happy occasions and Iran’s cultural heritage. Nowadays individuals and bands sing it for all ages. Famous bands playing the music of Bakhshis of Khorasan are invited to perform in various concerts across the world these days. Such musicians have obtained valuable titles for their unique and beautiful arts.

What It Takes to Become a Bakhshi Musician & Singer

From singers and Khorasan people’s points of view, one won’t become a Bakhshi artist if he merely has got mastery over performing as a singer and musician. To become a true Bakhshi music artist, you will have to have all the skill of making Dotar, performing the music, singing songs, improvisation, storytelling and composing poems.

As the word “Bakhshi” is rooted in “Bahshesh” meaning “giving” or “gift”, people believe that only God may give you such a gift to become such an artist. The performer should be essentially of a high artistic, spiritual and mystical position. Therefore, such performers are highly respected and valued among Khorasan people. Often times, the singers of this style of music are from elderly gray-bearded men of this region.

Take a trip to Khorasan, the Motherand of Maqami Music

You can explore the musical instrument workshops during your trip to Khorasan region and visit to cities and towns like Bojnourd, Torbat-e Jaam, Shirvan, Quchan, Esfarayen, Dar-e Gaz, etc. When you travel to North East of Iran, Khorasan provinces, remember to visit the bakhshi music singers who sing of love, people, religion and history in purple-color saffron fields. Also keep in mind that it will be quite rewarding to participate in Bakhshi musician circles, listen to the sound of their hand-made instruments and let this music tie your hearts and soul to the Eastern magic.

 

Naqqali the Intangible Iranian Cultural Heritage of Dramatic Story-Telling

naqqali-dramatic-story-telling-001

naqqali-dramatic-story-telling

 

Naqqali and reciting Shahnameh has always been a common and favorite tradition among Iranians as a branch of performing arts and story-telling. Shahnameh is the world’s longest epic poem book created by a single poet, Ferdowsy, the famous Iranian poet of 10th & 11th centuries, who save the Persian language and identity by this book.

Naqqali is performed by one person. Its goal is to transfer wisdom and experience from previous generations to the present one. To join the spectators of this popular art in such circles is a special experience of an intangible cultural heritage inherited by Iranians. It’s a tourist attraction that hasn’t been tapped into yet as of this time.

Creation of Naqqali Art in Iran

It’s not clearly known when exactly this art has emerged. However, some authors have referred to it at some history books and works like Shahnameh. Some also believe it came into existence after Islam. After the arrival of Arians into the Iranian plateau, Naqqali has flourished more than before. Old stories like those of Mithra, Anahita, and Siavash indicate the age of this art registered by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of Iranians.

From Naqqali to Shahnameh Recitation

It has been very common to narrate and tell stories during long nights of winter and Ramadan. Naqqals (story-tellers) used to tell the stories of Abu-Moslem, Samak-e Ayar, and Darab Nameh with poems and songs. Many literary works, like poems of Ferdowsy, Rumi, Nezami, Jami, Sa’adi and others, have become eternal with the help of Naqqqals’ restless works.

Gradually, story-tellers began narrating other sources as well. Among all such works, Shahnameh received a lot more attention than others. Narrating stories of Shahnameh was intertwined with the history of coffee shops (today’s teahouses) in Iran. Among all the other stories, the story of “Rostam and Sohrab” got the most significant status. Therefore, it got to the point that Naqqali in coffee shops is synonymous with “Killing Sohrab”.

Reciting Shahnameh is rooted in Iran’s rituals and traditions and its focal point is the mausoleum of Ferdowsy. Today Shahnameh recitation circles are formed at his burial place. Such circles attract large number of people from all over the world to the festival of performing arts of Iran, in particular, to Naqqali.

 

Features of Naqqals

Naqqals have been the guardians of folklore, epic stories and folkloric music. They were dressed in white or navy-blue shirt, special long cloak, vest, traditional shoes (charoq) and a special dervish-style shawl (rashmah) to be present in coffee shops. Sometimes, they also put on some old hats and armored coats to narrate battle scenes and various other topics as stories.

Comparing champions’ stories with the lives of the people at the present time, kept myths and legends alive. Story-tellers tried to attract their audience to their performance by performing arts that suited their stories’ events. When it comes to Naqqals features, one can say they:

  • Taught stories of the previous generations to the present generation,
  • Carried with themselves particular scrolls of various stories written in prose,
  • Were known as artists with high social status among people,
  • Had good voice and talent of eloquence and improvisation,
  • Were known to have particular ability to imagine,
  • Had capability to perform swift and exaggerated movements,
  • Used scepter to imitate scenes like using an arch or sword,
  • Performed in roofed places and mainly in coffee shops, and
  • Mastered reciting scrolls and memorizing different types of stories.

Naqqali, an Art for Women

Story telling is an art and event made for women. Our childhood stories are mixed with our mothers’ voices. In other words, we’ve heard our first stories from our mothers. According to cultural and historical evidences, the first Iranian female naqqal was Shahrzad. The second one was Ferdowsy’s wife called “Bot-e Mehraban” (meaning kind idol).

Women were the earliest performers of the art of naqqali, but they lost it to men due to some social issues. Naqqali was taken to coffee shops, which culturally weren’t considered decent places for women. As women have found other places to perform, today they are some of the most outstanding Iranian Shahnameh recitation artists. As a result, they contribute largely to keep this old art alive. Such beautiful event is an important attraction that brings the art and culture fans together in Iran.

Naqqali vs European Opera

One can say Naqqali is comparable to some European arts like opera. Of course, opera is categorized as a genre of musical and theatrical performance, but one can find similarities in its style of developing stories. Like Naqqali, Opera uses musical language to narrate stories, but it’s different in performing style and the number of performers.

Just remember, when you travel to Iran, make sure you join the circles of Naqqali and Shahnameh recitation. It is performed in various places and particularly in performing arts festivals. Also, keep in mind that there are many old traditional coffee shops all across Iran beautifully decorated with scenes from old stories. Each of those places and their paintings have got some stories in them that could provide you with unique and pleasant stories.